Rule-breaking puts up major hurdles to improving school meals
When principals allow junk food sales, it’s tougher to get students healthy
I’ll never forget touring one of Houston ISD’s high schools back when my son was in eighth grade. Sitting in the school’s darkened auditorium, we and other prospective families watched a video touting the school’s virtues: top-notch academics, a robust sports program, a multitude of clubs — and the fact that students could buy fast food lunches three times a week, brought in as a PTA fundraiser.
As an advocate working to improve HISD’s school food, my jaw dropped. Most campus junk food sales were banned by federal regulations in 2014, so I assumed the video was made by students who didn’t know better. Imagine my shock when the video ended and the principal himself reiterated this illegal selling point for his school.
But this high school was hardly unique. Our cash-strapped schools have long relied on junk food sales to fund extracurricular programs like field trips, the senior prom or sending a team to a tournament. One third of Texas kids may be overweight or obese, but it’s still easy to rationalize the practice. After all, kids do need these programs, and by the time some of them develop weightrelated diseases — by the time they need insulin or amputations — they’ll be long out of HISD.
Maybe that’s why some principals have been so cavalier about breaking the law. Even before 2014, when Texas had its own state policy reining in school junk food, principals generally knew in advance when their campuses would be audited. Brisk sales of Chick-Fil-A, soda and candy would predictably come to a halt,
only to resume once the audit was over.
Even when the state did issue a fine, many principals regarded the penalty as the cost of doing business — one that paled in comparison to the thousands of dollars raised by peddling junk food. Some schools even got away scot-free after being caught in the act. In 2013, when eight Houston high schools were fined a total of $73,000 for illegal junk food sales, they marched up to Austin and somehow got the fines revoked. I’m told that, to this day, one of those principals has the reversal order proudly framed in his office.
Unfortunately, not much has changed since 2014. Our schools still need money, selling junk food is a sure-fire way to raise it, and many principals aren’t deterred by the threat of fines. So why should anyone now consider changing course? Two words: Betti Wiggins. You may not know that name, but in school food circles, Wiggins is something of a living legend. When people in those circles heard she’d signed on as HISD’s new school food director, I kept getting congratulatory emails, like my entire district had just won the lottery.
Why all the fuss? Wiggins is credited with transforming the school meals in Detroit, which she accomplished by ditching the “carnival food,” increasing servings of fruits and vegetables, boosting local food purchasing and launching a gardening program. She’s brimming with enthusiasm and fresh ideas, and has the potential to make Houston’s school food a model for the entire nation.
But if junk food sales continue unabated, Wiggins’s job will be exponentially harder. For one thing, every dollar spent on junk food is a dollar that could have gone into her program. Unlawful fundraising also forces the cafeteria to compete with fast food chains for children’s palates. That’s a tall order even for Wiggins, who, for good reason, can’t use unlimited salt, sugar and fat in her food.
If we want Wiggins to succeed, we all have to become her partners. Our school board should announce a new era in HISD, one in which illegal junk food sales will no longer be tolerated. Principals must heed that call and stop condoning these sales on their campuses. And parents and student groups need to get more creative in their fundraising. Putting out donuts and a cash box may be easy, but other districts have proven that non-food fundraising can still be profitable. Plus, Texas permits six “exempt” days a year when schools can fundraise with any type of food.
Even those outside HISD can help. Are you a philanthropic Houstonian who cares about kids’ health? Why not promise to pay for a school’s annual fundraising needs — in exchange for the principal’s pledge to end junk food sales?
We really did just win the school food lottery, Houston, so let’s not squander our prize. The time has come to finally put an end to illegal, unhealthy fundraising. Because Wiggins can’t do her job unless we all do our part, too.
Siegel is a member of the HISD School Health Advisory Council and blogs about children and food policy at www.thelunchtray.com.
First-graders enjoy a meal at Port of Houston Elementary School in 2013.